After a record-setting college career at the University of Georgia, Matthew Stafford (QB) was selected first overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft by Detroit and quickly named the Lions’ starting quarterback.
Upon his return from a Week 4 knee injury, Stafford suffered a left shoulder injury in a win over Cleveland – but not before setting the record as the youngest player to complete five touchdown passes in a game and the then-rookie record for passing yards in a game. Despite being named NFC Offensive Player of the Week and Pepsi Rookie of the Week, Stafford was placed on injured reserve in December 2009 and sat out the final two games of the season.
Recovered from his 2009 injuries, Stafford entered the 2010 season healthy and focused, only to suffer a right shoulder injury in the season opener. He went on to play three games that season before succumbing to season ending shoulder surgery.
In 2011, Stafford came roaring back, leading the Lions to their first 5-0 start in 55 years and passing for 11 touchdowns and 1,436 yards – an average of more than 287 yards per game – through fives games. He has been named FedEx Air Player of the Week and has established himself as one of the NFL’s rising stars.
The first overall selection in the 2005 NFL Draft by San Francisco, Alex Smith (QB) was a highly touted and decorated quarterback out of the University of Utah .
Smith was eager to showcase his talents at the next level, but was sidelined with an injury and only played nine games as a rookie. In his second year, Smith improved in touchdowns, passing yards and quarterback rating and became the first 49er quarterback to take every snap in a season.
Over the next four seasons, Smith fought through more injuries and a personal tragedy. Surgery to repair a separated shoulder ended his 2007 season. Smith began the 2008 season as the backup and suffered a broken bone in early September, landing him on injured reserve again. In 2009, as Smith was battling for the starting job in San Francisco, he also was faced with the suicide of his close friend and former housemate. Though he began the season as the backup, a grieving Smith began to grow in determination. In Week 7, he was brought in mid-game and threw three touchdowns. Smith was named the starter the following day. Smith entered the 2010 season as starter and team captain, but a Week 7 injury sidelined him until Week 14.
After re-signing with San Francisco in the offseason, he led many unofficial team workouts during the lockout. Highly effective game management, growing confidence and dedication led Kurt Warner to name Smith to the NFL Network’s list of the season’s best quarterbacks through six games.
Widely renowned as one of the best tight ends in Texas Longhorns history, Jermichael Finley (TE) was drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft by Green Bay.
Finley had a quiet rookie season in 2008, playing in 14 games with six receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown. In 2009, Finley broke out with one of the most productive seasons by a tight end in Packers’ history. He posted his first 100-yard game in October against Minnesota and totaled 55 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns, despite missing three games with a knee injury. He was just one catch shy of tying the team’s single-season record for catches by a tight end. In the NFC Wild Card loss to Arizona, he had the second-most productive postseason game by a tight end in terms of receptions (six) and receiving yards (159) in NFL history.
In 2010, Finley posted two 100-yard games in the first three games of the season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. At the time he was placed on injured reserve, Finley was leading the Packers in receiving yards (301) and per-catch average (14.3) and ranked second in the league among tight ends in receiving yards. The Packers went on to win Super Bowl XLV.
In 2011, Finley emerged as the starting tight end and has put up impressive numbers. In a Week 3 victory over Chicago, he posted seven receptions for 85 yards and three touchdowns.
An undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois University, Tony Romo (QB) signed with Dallas following the 2003 NFL Draft. After three years watching from the sidelines, Romo made his first regular-season appearance in 2006. He has been the Cowboys’ regular starter since.
Romo’s first two passes in 2006 were a 33-yard completion and a two-yard touchdown pass. He quickly took over and, in his first game as a starter, led the Cowboys to a victory. He finished the 2006 season ranked seventh in passing yards and touchdown passes and was selected to the Pro Bowl – despite not starting until Week 8. Romo broke out in 2007, finishing second in the NFL with 36 touchdowns and third with 4,211 passing yards, making him the first Cowboy to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a single season and earning him his second Pro Bowl. After a quiet 2008, Romo reemerged in 2009, finishing his seventh season as the first quarterback in team history to take every snap and topping his own single-season club record for passing yards (4,483). He posted eight 300-yard games, also a team record. Romo led Dallas to an NFC East title and posted a 104.9 passer rating in the team’s first playoff win in 13 seasons. Romo was selected to his third Pro Bowl.
In 2010, Romo opened the season as an elite quarterback, but his meteoric rise was slowed when a broken left clavicle in Week 5 cut his season short.
In 2011, Romo emerged fully recovered. Unfortunately, he suffered a cracked rib and punctured lung in Week 2 . Playing through the pain, Romo averaged 318 passing yards in four of the Cowboys’ first five games and threw for eight touchdowns. He also was named the NFC Player of the Week following his Week 2 performance.
Steve Smith (WR) was selected in the third round of the 2001 NFL Draft. In his first year, Smith starred on special teams, setting a team record for combined net yards (1,994) to lead all rookies and ranked fourth overall in the league. His stellar season earned him a selection to the 2002 Pro Bowl, an honor never before earned by a Panthers’ rookie.
In 2002, Smith earned a starting spot at wide receiver and led the Panthers in receiving yards. In 2003, he notched his third straight season with at least 1,900 combined net yards and scored a dramatic overtime touchdown in the NFC Divisional playoffs, ending the fifth-longest game in NFL history.
After an injury-riddled 2004, Smith returned at full-strength in 2005 and set single-season club records for receptions, receiving yards and 100-yard receiving games. Smith was named Comeback Player of the Year by both Pro Football Weekly and the Pro Football Writers Association. He also earned his second Pro Bowl bid, was selected as a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press and Sports Illustrated, and was named the NFL Alumni Wide Receiver of the Year.
Smith earned his third Pro Bowl selection in 2006 and became the third player in club history to record 300 career receptions. In 2007, he established the club record for career touchdowns (45). In 2008, he finished third in the league in receiving yards and was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl. Smith ended his otherwise successful 2009 season on injured reserve after suffering a broken left arm in December.
Despite missing two 2010 games with injury, Smith led Carolina in receptions (46) and receiving yards (554) and touchdowns (two) – for the eighth time in his 10-year Panther career . To start off his 11th season in 2011, Smith had four 100-yard games in his first seven contests. He averaged 20+ yards per reception in his first five games. He is the Panthers’ all-time leader in receiving yards.